And to Ecstasy by Marjon Mossammaparast, Upswell Publishing 2022, was launched by Prithvi Varatharajan at the Crystal Palace & Courtyard, Carlton North, 27 November 2022.
I’m Prithvi Varatharajan. I’m honoured to be launching Marjon Mossammaparast’s second poetry collection, And to Ecstasy. Like Marjon, I’m really pleased that her publisher Terri-ann White is here in Melbourne from Perth. And thanks to you all for coming here this Sunday afternoon, to celebrate this fine collection.
The poet has asked that I pitch my speech to a general audience, which I’m happy to. I’m also a poet, but I have academic and critical tendencies. Imagine that I’ve got an audio mixer here in front of me, and I’ve just turned down the knobs that say ‘scholarly’ and ‘critical’ while turning up another – perhaps more widely shared – mode for approaching the poems in this collection.
And to Ecstasy satisfies a standard I have for good poetry, which may not be unique to me. This is that it should encourage, and sustain, re-reading. I don’t tend to come to novels with the expectation that they hold my interest so well – word by word, and line by line – that I need to re-read every one. But I want poetry to resist my initial attempts at grasping it – to be more than I can hold at once, inviting me to encounter it many times over. Marjon and I have chatted about the frustrating impulse to ‘understand’ poems on a first reading, and how this can actually detract from appreciation and enjoyment. Better to play the long game with poems, to be patient with them, see what they offer up as you return to them.
A poetry collection might invite re-reading because parts of it are challenging to interpret, because taken as a whole, it’s an alluring enigma, or simply because it’s pleasurable. This collection contains all of these dimensions. So let me tell you what’s in it. Within the covers of And to Ecstasy you’ll find:
- A highly visual imagination, like a camera panning and shifting its perspectives: ‘Buds converge on spring / seen by a child through a window,’ Marjon writes in ‘Interlude 2’. In another poem, she conveys that: ‘Damp grass recalls me to the metaphor of grass’ [p. 39]. These sensory impressions often lightly revel in their existence within language. They are also initially coupled with calmness or quietude in the perceiving ‘I’.
- Intense focus and poise. You feel this palpably in a poem set at the Sanctuary on the Hill in Bologna. The poem moves to the pace of walking, matching the falling of the light in the evening, step by step. These are its opening lines:
Twilight: we begin our descent
through roofed portico
towards cemetery and necropolis
We are dying
now, at the hour of death
taking these steps down
There is the acquisition of knowledge through observation, but also a recognition of enduring mystery in the world. One poem finds the poet on a ‘ledge / where the world reveals and conceals itself.’
There is spiritual yearning, and fulfilment. Marjon is of the Baháʼí Faith, as she notes in the Acknowledgements. The poet expresses desire for humans to ‘manifest / the numinous passing clouds’, while in an other poem, ‘Heart,’ she asks rhetorically: ‘What is love but a fragment / What is death but sowing / the temporary in the eternal … / This is the ear to the ground)’.
There is continual movement between places. There’s also an imagining of spiritual experience as a ‘place outside of place,’ as a poem called ‘Movement’ puts it.
There is sadness, and quiet fury, at the contemporary world. At the end of the Prologue, which sees the poet transiting Doha, we read: ‘I am orphaned of my countries / turning north to a city that burned / forty years ago / turning south to a land fanned by hellfire / chokeholds of fuel, fuel, fuel.’ Fire occurs in various forms in And to Ecstasy: bush fires, the fire of a hearth, the earth burning up as we consume its fossils. Later in the collection, there is also the ecstatic burning of spiritual communion.
And there is beauty in spades, in finely crafted language.
And to Ecstasy rewards both casual reading – as when you flick it open at random, and absorb a single poem – but especially, I think, sustained reading.
The book contains three sections, titled ‘[There]’,‘[Here]’ and ‘[Field]’. A simple way to characterise these would be to say that ‘[There]’ encompasses poems set overseas from Australia; ‘[Here]’ contains poems set in Australia; and ‘[Field]’ explores a place of spirituality which is neither here nor there. The final poem of the second section ‘[Here]’ is titled ‘At the Gate’. Here, we seem to be about to leave the material world – are at the threshold of another plane.
Let me also offer a more complicated interpretation of these sections; this is me letting the critic within me speak more volubly, for a moment. The titles ‘Here,’ ‘There’ and ‘Field’ all have square parentheses around them. In essays, square brackets like these indicate an insertion of a word or phrase in a quotation. This might be to modify a passage so that it makes sense as it’s quoted, or to clarify some detail in the quote. Such text occupies an in-between space – neither the there of the quoted text in its original form, nor the here of the author’s thoughts. With their square brackets, Marjon’s section titles seem to indicate that all the places in the poems that follow – the ‘there’ of the foreign, the ‘here’ of the local, and the ‘field’ of the spirit – are drawn into the in-between space of the poet’s imagination.
Intriguingly, poems written in response to art exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria appear in both the sections ‘[There]’ and ‘[Here]’. Meanwhile, ‘[Field]’ contains a response to a composition performed at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, by the pianist Ludovico Einaudi. While some poems express displacement, of not feeling ‘at home’ in one’s environment, this triple appearance led me to wonder if the poet considers art to be at home everywhere.
The poetic sensibility in And to Ecstasy is intelligent, keenly observational, and open. Let me read you a local poem which I think conveys this sensibility. It’s an untitled poem, set in Gippsland.
Everything large, durable, extravagant,
the scale of megafauna. Confounding as platypus.
Countries still defining their prayerlines.
The lazy eye rolls towards the coast,
erects dusty fences, drinks itself to the starry night.
Wominjeka; come with purpose, land cloven from heart.
Something bristles against suburban brick
a catalogue of names that tips, precariously
every morning with the traffic of utes.
Come with purpose
travel fully to the river
set your feet there
gaze right and left
beseech the mercy
put your ear to water
Vast sea-rivers that become reflective lakes, two eyes
open. Too-far cows on too-far parched fields,
the slate sky: and the river and the lake and the sea
umber rocks, two fishermen, La Niña,
a tiny swift on the fork of a log. …………………………..unfathomly bespoke
Time, for weathers to move, a change of scene,……………….. the clouds
these flies to be restrung, rejewelled on the deck
of our backs. Hill after hill
without cliff-falls, sheer endurance of land ……………unfathomly, receding
carriage of song. We could die,
with a casual twist of conversation, the slip of a hand,
scattered like bones at the end of the dirt road.
You might have heard, as you listened, its quiet evocation of a history ‘scattered like bones at the end of the dirt road’ – a history which ‘bristles against suburban brick’. The poet leaves her imagining open, for us to fill in gaps, and also to imagine the ‘catalogue of names’ she alludes to.
An unusual aspect of the collection that I love is the poem-within-the-poem. If you look at the right-hand page of the poem I just read, you’ll see that three lines near the right margin are in italics. These lines are: ‘unfathomly bespoke / the clouds / unfathomly, receding’. They’re physically separate to this poem and can be read on their own, but are also part of it. Here, clouds hover off to the side of a depiction of a landscape that is beneath them. In the final section, ‘[Field]’, there’s a long poem called ‘Cosmos,’ split across three pages. Marjon tells us in its notes that it references realms of existence described in Sufi mythology. These realms are named in the poem, as part of a refrain that opens each section: ‘On the plane of Nasut’ / ‘On the plane of Malakut’ / On the plane of Jabarut’ / ‘On the plane of Lahut’ / ‘On the plane of Yahut’ / ‘On the plane of Hahut.’ Each section also has a much smaller poem in italics next to it. These sister poems (as I came to think of them) often seem to distill something essential about the section they correspond to. One of my favourite ‘sister poems’ comes in the next sequence, ‘Prayer,’ which is split across two pages. In step with the much larger poem, we get this in italics:
‘to make of my prayer / a fire // that will burn away / the veils // and a river that will lead / to the ocean // Thy Presence’.
Italics don’t only function to mark out such poems-within-poems. Occasionally, whole larger poems are italicised, and interspersed between the others. This creates an impression of dialogue, as though the poems are calling and responding to each other. Many of these larger, italicised poems appear to be in the familiar voice of the poet, while a couple of others animate historical or mythic figures. The typography and formatting of the book help create these subtle poetic shifts.
To conclude, I’d recommend And to Ecstasy to you by saying: Enjoy its artful exploration of enigma. Enjoy its poise – the way poems seem to hold their subjects carefully. Enjoy its intelligent perspectives on our shared, material world, and on inner worlds of thought, feeling, and spirit.
– Prithvi Varatharajan
Prithvi Varatharajan is a writer, editor, and literary audio producer living in Naarm/Melbourne. He started out writing poems, which have appeared intermittently in Australian journals from 2009. and published his first collection of poems and prose, Entries, in 2020. He is also working with the essay form, and is currently most excited by hybrid essay forms: narrative or personal essays that employ sustained and substantiated analysis, lyric essays, and fictocriticism. He also produces cultural and literary radio programs, and has produced literary programs for ABC radio and Red Room Company, which you can listen to here.
And to Ecstasy is available from https://upswellpublishing.com/product/and-to-ecstasy